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Buccaneers prove to the Steelers, and the rest of the NFL, the importance of an offensive line

If the Super Bowl taught us anything, it is the importance of having an offensive line.

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NFL: Super Bowl LV-Kansas City Chiefs vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers, along with 30 other NFL franchises, were sitting on their couches watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs play in Super Bowl 55 Sunday night.

During the game, one thing became increasingly obvious, and something the Steelers should seriously take note. If you want to win in the NFL, you need to have an offensive line.

Period.

The Steelers deployed an offensive line in 2020 which did a tremendous job in pass protection, but couldn’t run the football to save their lives. In fact, the Steelers ranked dead last in rushing yards per game, and rushing yards per attempt.

But what was on display in front of the world was a Buccaneers offensive line which didn’t just protect Tom Brady, but was absolutely dominating the point of attack. In the Super Bowl the Buccaneers’ offensive line did the following:

33 carries, 145 yards, 4.4 average, 1 TD
21/29 passing, 201 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 1 sack, 2 QB Hits

Granted, the above statistics are not just solely the offensive line, Brady was the one completing the passes, but you couldn’t help but notice the time Brady had compared to the team on the other side of the field.

Speaking of the other side of the field, the Chiefs’ depleted offensive line was a porous as they come. The Chiefs put up the following stats in the game:

17 carries, 107 yards, 6.3 average
26/49 passing, 270 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT, 3 sacks, 10 QB Hits

The Chiefs’ rushing numbers are skewed due to Patrick Mahomes running for his life, and positive yards, on more than one occasion during the game. In fact, Mahomes accounted for 33 of Kansas City’s rushing yards.

This game was won in the trenches, and when it comes to the offensive side of the ball it was Tampa Bay who imposed their will on the Chiefs’ defense. Some will cite fatigue by the Kansas City defense, and you certainly can make a case for that, but the eye test rarely lies. And what that test indicated was the Buccaneers offensive front was man-handling the Chiefs throughout the game.

Just look at the statistic below from the Super Bowl.

Thinking about the offensive lines got me curious. I wanted to see where they ranked heading into the postseason, and I found Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) rankings of every NFL offensive line heading into the playoffs.

Here is where they ranked:

5. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Tom Brady has been under pressure on just 24% of his dropbacks this season — fourth lowest in the NFL — despite operating in a Bruce Arians offense that traditionally brought pressure on its quarterbacks due to the emphasis on the downfield passing game. Part of the credit for that should go to Brady himself, but the guys up front deserve some love, as well.

In particular, rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs has played at an All-Pro level in his first season in the NFL, which is a real rarity for rookie offensive linemen. Wirfs’ 82.2 PFF grade ranks second at the right tackle position, and he has proven himself against some of the best edge defenders in the league — a list that includes the likes of Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa.

Wirfs and left guard Ali Marpet serve as the cornerstones for what should be one of the best offensive lines in the NFL moving forward.

Now onto the Chiefs’ offensive line, but it should be noted how banged up this group was heading into the Super Bowl. Let’s not forget they had to rely on Stefan Wisniewski, who was let go by the Steelers earlier this season, as a starter in the Super Bowl.

11. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Any time you can lose one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL for over half the season and keep your head above water as an offensive line, that’s not a bad result. That’s what we’ve seen from the Chiefs this season, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz missing every game since Week 6 with a back injury. His replacement, Mike Remmers, has fared admirably in pass protection in his stead. Remmers’ pressure rate allowed of 4.4% this season would be his lowest mark at the tackle position since 2014.

The Chiefs’ offensive line can be made out to look worse than it is in pass protection because of the way Patrick Mahomes plays the position and the deeper drops he takes. In fact, a position-high 53 pressures were charged to Mahomes himself over the course of the regular season. It’s something that the Chiefs will gladly live with because of the plays that Mahomes can make and the way he avoids negative plays, but it’s something to keep in mind when evaluating the offensive line.

Whenever we are talking about rankings, it is natural to want to see where the Steelers ranked. We know they could pass block, but how did their sub-par run blocking hur them?

17. PITTSBURGH STEELERS

The Steelers’ offensive line has been an interesting case this season. Going purely off pressure rate allowed, they’ve been the best pass-protecting unit in the NFL, with Ben Roethlisberger being pressured on a league-low 21% of his dropbacks this season. The important footnote there is that Roethlisberger is also getting rid of the football quicker than any quarterback we’ve charted since 2012 (2.17 seconds on average). The PFF grades are built to factor that in, however, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line still finished the regular season ranked fourth in pass-blocking grade.

A 31st-ranked run-blocking unit is what drops them to 17th on this list. The only starting offensive lineman with a run-blocking grade north of 60.0 is Alejandro Villanueva at 60.9, and that shows in their rushing success on the year. No team averaged fewer yards per run play (3.6) than the Steelers did this year. It’s a group that could use an injection of youth and talent this offseason.

You can debate PFF’s rankings until you are blue in the face, but the fact remains the Steelers need to change everything about the way they operate as an offensive line. The way they block, the play calling and even the personnel to an extent. This will be the challenge this offseason, and will be huge for the team as NFL Free Agency and the 2021 NFL Draft approach.